Review: “Paddling to Winter” by Julie Buckles
Woe to the person who, without reading a word, pigeon-holes this book as a travelogue, another outdoors story filled with wind and mosquitoes, sunsets and silence. Paddling to Winter is about more than just a canoe trip. It is about a way of living that is rare and very special.
In 1999, Julie Buckles and her husband Charly Ray paddled away from a Lake Superior beach in northern Wisconsin and headed north on what they had long-called “The Trip.” It was a dream trip for Charly that he was now sharing with Julie as their honeymoon. Julie, being a reporter for the Ashland Daily Press, wrote articles about their travels that were published in the paper. We were all following them north to winter that year. I remember reading those stories in the newspaper. I think I sent them a Christmas card that winter. Their trip was one I hoped to emulate someday, and years later, my canoe partner and I would follow some of the same route, even borrowing maps from Julie and Charly to help us navigate the Winnipeg River.
Their plan was to paddle west from the Bayfield Peninsula to Duluth, then north up the Lake Superior shore to where they would carry over into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and thread their way along a series of lakes and rivers that would take them 1,700 miles to Wollaston Lake in northeast Saskatchewan. They would spend the winter at Wollaston Lake, then continue north the next spring––first by snowshoe, then by canoe––1,300 miles to the Arctic Ocean. An ambitious expedition that any canoeist will envy.
What’s interesting about this book is that paddling is only half the story. Buckles goes beyond the trip details all paddlers love, and shows what else canoe travel can be––a distillation of life to its common essentials: food, water, and shelter; the raising of one’s awareness––you pay attention to wind, to clouds, and to sounds. In the midst of this nomadic life, one realizes that all the “stuff” society holds as important is, in reality, almost entirely unnecessary.
The other half of the story is about spending the winter in Wollaston Post, Saskatchewan––28 miles from the end of the nearest road, which then runs 260 miles to the next town. Actually, they lived nearly 15 miles from town, on Estevan Island in Wollaston Lake, using a cabin that had been offered to them by a couple who went south in the winter.
As the name implies, Wollaston Post is really an outpost. An enclave of 1,200 people, “80% of them Dene and 10–15% Cree.” It is a place of sublime beauty where the weather dictates what a person will do on any given day. “That’s the way the North worked, I was learning. There was a respect for weather. If it turned bad, people sat it out. Travel meant taking chances. Work mattered less than being alive, warm, fed, and comfortable.” Days are spent reading and writing, visiting with friends, chopping and hauling fire wood, and listening to the chatter of a “trapper radio”––a ham radio people used to communicate with one another across the great expanses of forest and water. These are simple pleasures that a slower life brings.
Being fortunate enough to spend a winter in such a place, though, is not always the paradise one might imagine. Solitude is both a gift and a challenge for active people like Julie and Charly because there is, as Buckles writes, a “great pressure that goes along with the gift of time.” Once those who dream of endless days in a beautiful place actually achieve that dream, they often come up against an insistent sense of needing to do something wonderful with the gift they have been given––write a great novel perhaps, or create a master piece of art. Julie and Charly struggled with this, but they came through in shining fashion. This book is proof of that.
Buckles has a great talent for paring down details to their finest points. In stories of winter camping, visits from family and friends, snowmobiling in search of caribou, being lost out on the ice, and the great anticipation for spring and the push further north, there are no slow-moving passages in this book. It is a compelling narrative that absorbs and moves the reader. Paddling to Winter is a story of two people living life close to the bone. They are fully engaged in the act of simply living. This is a story about chasing and capturing a dream, then having to let it go when the “outside world” presses in, as it always does. But that doesn’t mean the dream is lost. It simply means the story continues. I hope Julie will share with us what happens next.